In a recent collection of essays Al Alvarez (adept at poker and extreme sport, and advocate in 1966 of new American poets ‘Beyond the Gentility Principle’) describes the writer alone with his own, rather dismal company. ‘For five or six days a week I sit at my desk and try to get the sentences right. If I make a mistake, I can rewrite it the following day. And if i fail to do so, who cares? Who even notices?’ By contract with this joyless occupation he finds that mountain climbing takes him to ‘wild, beautiful, lonely places… Climbing is a physical activity of a special rather intellectual kind. Each pitch is a series of specific local problems: which holds to use, and in which combinations, in order to climb safely… Every move has to be worked out by a kind of physical strategy in terms of effort, balance and consequences… In the beautiful, silent, useless world of the mountains, you can achieve a seriousness of a wayward kind. It seems to me worth a little risk.’
Alvarez insists on the contract between the risk-taking and self-testing of climbing and the safety of the desk – whereas what struck me on reading this was exactly the opposite: how easily the two could be interchanged without disturbing the original terms of his description. In fact, in the opening poem ‘Footings’ in Colette’s first collection, The Heel of Bernadette, this is exactly what she has done. Two characters are imagined: one dangling precariously at a dangerous height on top of wall, the other keenly aware of the odds, but daring her partner to jump. The poem is addressed to both as twin aspects of the writer’s self: ‘for those with the leap approach to life / for those to who measure, look, think twice.’.
Editors speak of ‘taking’ a poem in the same way that climbers speak of ‘taking’ a mountain. Reflecting on her role as editor in her first editorial for Poetry London, Colette reminded us of Coleridge’s advice not to be ‘afraid of oneself’. ‘I have always taken, or perhaps been given’, she wrote, ‘courage from good poems’.
Each step in a good poem may require a surprising leap. But the poem that truly lends one courage is the one whose surprises are, as the etymology of the word ‘surprise’ literally states, ‘beyond grasp’: in other words, the one whose secure footings or hand-holds may be the most challenging to find. From classical times poetry has been understoof as that breach in reason that then becomes, in itself, a new means of making sense. It is ‘this mad instead‘ Richard Wilbur evoked with the utmost caution in ‘Praise in Summer’. And like the vigilant climber who recognised with Rilke that ‘Every angel is terrifying’ and that no good poem can be wholly safe, the editor has to answer the challenge issues by the poem to rehearse the risky and daring experience it itself performs.
‘The purpose of poetry is to reminds us’, Milosz wrote, ‘how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.’ This issue, our 75th, celebrates the 25 years that Poetry London‘s house has been open. Some of the most surprising guests in these pages are the new American poets Timothy Donnelly, Matthea Harvey, Nuar Alsdair, Katy Lederer and Jason Schneiderman, along wth, in the reviews section: John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Edward Dorn and Frederick Seidel.
Colette Bryce’s skill as Poetry Editor over the past four years has been widely recognised. As the person on the second rope, so to speak, I wish her the very best for the future.